When Ireland last fielded their front line troops at the Aviva Stadium, against New Zealand in November, the rapturous response from players and fans alike at the final whistle could not have been more exuberant. Unbridled joy. Kings of the world.
On Saturday, French referee Jerome Garcès’ whistle to signal the end of our Six Nations opener just couldn’t come quick enough. Having failed to score a single try against Ireland in Dublin since 2011, England registered a first 1 minute 35 seconds into the game and bagged three more for a bonus point win to signal a seismic victory, not only in the context of this championship, but with a view on what’s to follow in a World Cup year.
The fact that Ireland failed to register a bonus point of any description could prove even more costly in a highly competitive championship that will prove challenging for any side to capture a Grand Slam. Ireland are out of that contest, with Wales and England looking the two viable candidates.
To describe this defeat as an ambush would be wrong. It was more an accident waiting to happen when some team would manage to stop Ireland bossing the collisions and winning the battle for the gain line. That is exactly what transpired on Saturday. England arrived in Dublin with a monstrous team, packed to the brim with explosive ball carriers with a capacity to do damage.
They had 10 British and Irish Lions in their starting side, excluding Billy Vunipola, who is of Lions stature and only failed to tick that box by having to cry off the tour of New Zealand two years ago due to injury. When he is match fit and primed to go, his team always has an even better chance of winning.
This English side is loaded with explosive power and once they get on the front foot, as they did from the outset on Saturday, have the capacity to steamroll any side. They seized their opportunity to do that right from the first kick off when they engineered a foothold in Irish territory and kept the pressure on for the entire game.
Normally in contests such as this, both sides enjoy periods of dominance. Not on this occasion. From the outset, England dominated all the mini battles and opened with a superbly constructed try that not only injected further confidence but appeared to suck the wind out of the Irish sails. Ireland never really recovered from the early setback of an excellent Jonny May try, registered even before the smoke from the pre-match fireworks had evaporated.
England scrum-half Ben Youngs summed it up best in advance of the game when revealing some of the areas his side had targeted at their training camp in Portugal. To beat Ireland, he said, “you have to win on the floor and in the air”. They managed to do just that and a whole lot more.
In effect, England took Ireland’s game plan and applied all the key elements that served us so well last year and turned it to good effect. Their kicking game, with Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls clear targets in the backfield, had Ireland scrambling.
Owen Farrell punted with pin-point accuracy, exposing the spaces that Henshaw was struggling to cover. He was always scampering to mop up Farrell’s probing kicks and was on the back foot all day. He wasn’t alone.
As I feared in advance, Eddie Jones took a leaf out of Exeter’s recent playbook against Munster and set out to stop Ireland building any momentum. The metres that CJ Stander, Cian Healy, James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong normally eat up with big carries weren’t on offer as England smashed every carrier in green that came their way.
On the flip side, when in possession, their explosive carriers in the Vunipola brothers, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and George Kruis gobbled up the yardage. When Ireland did manage to put some semblance of continuity together, England’s defensive line speed was so intense Ireland had no space to attack and were forced laterally across the field.
That pressure told with Ireland guilty of five handling errors in the opening half alone, compared to just one from England. England looked far more comfortable and composed on the ball and the variety of the kicking game offered by Farrell had Ireland reeling. Youngs wasn’t far behind him, especially in the second half, when he kept Ireland pegged deep in their own half.
With their pack struggling to generate any quick ball, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray struggled and looked off the pace, and their famed kicking game never inflicted the type of damage it normally wreaks when in full flow.
England’s back three dealt comfortably with everything that came their way. May, not noted for his aerial stability, was sensational, as was the under-appreciated Jack Nowell. That assuredness filtered through to every sector of the English side.
The one glimmer of hope in the opening half was, on the rare occasions that Ireland managed to get a foothold in the England 22, they returned with points on the board, a clinically executed line out maul try from Cian Healy a case in point. The only problem was, those forays were all too rare.
After the break things got even worse. On so many occasions in the past, that ten minutes after half time marks the period when Ireland lift the pace and intensity levels to a point where they pull away from their opponents.
That never looked like happening here as England were primed to resist any semblance of an Irish fightback. Such was the level of their increasing dominance that Ireland only managed one solitary entry to the England 22 in the second half prior to John Cooney’s consolation try at the death.
The most worrying aspect of this performance was the lack of composure under pressure from some of the more experienced campaigners, including Murray and Sexton. They were guilty of pressing the panic button too early, at a point when Ireland were still only four points behind, forcing passes that just weren’t on in an effort to make something happen.
All that achieved was setting up players in poor positions to be smashed.
Bundee Aki was on the receiving end of a massive hit from his opposite number Manu Tuilagi after a loose pass, while Courtney Lawes delivered two trademark, bone-crunching hits on Sexton and Garry Ringrose that only served to lift everyone in white even more.
Lawes’ bench impact was huge and went a long way towards compensating for the loss of Itoje to injury. Itoje had a massive game but should have been yellow carded for a challenge on Earls that was far more dangerous than the one five minutes earlier by Tom Curry that earned him 10 minutes in the sin bin.
Ireland failed to register any points when England were reduced to 14 men and, given their defensive solidity throughout, would probably have coped with 13 if they had had to.
With no time to lick their wounds and a tricky encounter against Scotland on Saturday, Ireland need to put this setback behind them quickly.
Joe Schmidt will be anxious to examine just why Ireland appeared flat from the outset and found themselves chasing a game they never looked like winning.
Under Schmidt, Ireland have never produced below-par performances for two tests in a row.
There will be a lot of soul-searching this week to make sure that doesn’t happen in Edinburgh.